Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company
Posted: 2021-12-16 07:48pm
Batman 1939: Three's CompanyGotham City. Fourteen years ago.
Chapter 15: The Goods
Chapter 15: The Goods
Bruce Wayne was backstage in a theater. On the other side of the curtain, Giovanni Zatara performed to a packed audience. Bruce ignored their applause. He was doing pushups with an open book under his face. Every fifth push, he lifted his hands off the floor to turn the page.
Zatanna Zatara walked by, shuffling a deck of cards. “How many pushups can you do?” she asked.
“All of them,” he said.
Zatanna walked a few more circles. “What's the book about?”
“Tax accounting,” said Bruce.
“Super.” She tossed down her cards on a crate. The top five were almost a royal flush, but with a joker instead of a ten. She sighed and sat on the crate. “John, I was wondering-”
She was interrupted by firecrackers popping onstage. Bruce stood. “One minute, Zatanna.”
They heard Giovanni sounding vaguely Arabic, “With the power of Ra, I fly!”
Bruce grabbed a thick rope hanging from the rafters and counted to three. On three, he pulled frantically, using his body weight with each tug. After several pulls, he tied the rope to a cleat on the floor.
Beyond the curtain, they heard, “Levitation! Levitation! Lo, as the last sorcerer of the Pharaohs I hear the desert winds whisper of spirits most sinister! They have arrived!” More firecrackers ignited. The crowd gasped and applauded.
Bruce stretched his arms. “Sorry. You were saying?”
“It was nothing,” Zatanna rubbed a smudge on the floor with her shoe. “Forget it.”
Bruce knelt and resumed his reading pushups.
Zatanna made some inner decision and stepped near him again. “Hey, John?”
“Yes?” He balanced on one hand to look up at her.
“Is it true what you told dad? You’re not coming back next week?”
Bruce had been blank-faced as usual, but this bent a crease between his eyebrows. He picked up his book and stood.
“You overheard us,” he said.
“So it’s true.”
“I was going to tell you.”
“But you like it here. I’ve even seen you smile sometimes.” The corner of his mouth turned up. She pointed at it. “See, see! Right there. Golly, I told you, didn’t I?”
Bruce forced his mouth flat. “I’ve already stayed a month longer than your father had agreed to.”
“Is that what you’re worried about? Geez, John, you’re not that bright.”
Bruce’s lip turned up again. “I’m not?”
“Dad likes having someone else to teach. Plus you’re finally useful enough to help in the shows. He’ll let you stay. And if he won’t, I’ll force him.”
“Besides, who else am I supposed to talk to? The paint on the wall?”
“You’ll make friends at school.”
“They all think I’m weird.”
“It’s only been two weeks. I’ve read that making friends takes time.”
“Some days they poke holes in my milk box. And one girl tattled on me when I showed the class a card trick, so the principal took my deck of cards. Then next period I tried with my other deck of cards so he took that too.”
“Zatanna, I’m grateful for everything you and your father have taught me, but I have so much else to learn. There are things I can’t learn here.”
“Boy that’s you: one big serious schoolboy. No time in your life for fun or magic.”
Before Bruce could answer, they noticed the tenor of the audience had turned confused. Then they realized Giovanni was shouting, “-I say again, I command the winds to lower me safely to Earth. Winds, lower me to Earth.”
Bruce dropped his book and dived to undo his knot from the rope cleat. He rose, letting the rope out hand under hand. When the tension was out, he let go and sat on the floor.
Zatanna sat beside him. “You’ll at least keep in touch, won’t you? You can always visit.”
Bruce picked up his book and brushed dust from the cover. “You’re right, Zatanna. I don’t have time for fun or magic. You deserve to meet kids your age. They’ll share all their fun with you.”
“You can share. You’re not much older than me, you know. Just because you act like a dictionary doesn’t mean you’re a group-up.”
“I’m old enough to know that some lives aren’t supposed to be shared.”
---The present. In the hidden room behind the fireplace.
Batman said nothing as he watched Catwoman disappear through the trap door in the ceiling, but his clenched heart stung like frost. They had separated on a mission last year, and he believed that she had died. He would never forget the lonely chill that night; he felt it in his dreams. But there was nothing he could do to stop her now. She could despise him all she wished; he only prayed that she survived. He couldn’t bear more blood on his hands.
“Hot diggity,” said Abdiel as he slapped his knee. “Is that a Little Mage’s First Primer set?” He pointed at a bookcase wedged behind a pile of empty birdcages. A birdcage flew out of the pile and struck Abdiel in the head.
“I forbade interruptions, prattler,” said Shadowcrest. “But I did wish to introduce that, so I will spare your fingers.”
Abdiel, dazed, managed to nod. Shadowcrest approached the bookcase as birdcages hopped out of its way. “Observe, Zatanna. As the dunce correctly identified, this is Little Mage’s First Primer, widely accepted as the most complete introduction to magic ever written.”
Shadowcrest turned on a floodlight over the bookcase. The shelves held four dozen books with the same blue leather covers and gold engraving.
“For millennia, young magi across the world have studied any hand-copied pages they could gather. One original volume is precious. The complete set is a rare treasure indeed. Even the library lacks a full set in English.”
Zatanna frowned. “So? Don’t we have other things to worry about?”
“This is as critical as any sword or shield, Mistress. Even if you survive tonight there is no prey more vulnerable nor infant more self-destructive than an untrained mage. Your father could not teach you from experience, so he acquired these books. If you wish to save your father, you must read.”
“So he was going to tell me about all this mage stuff? What was he waiting for?”
“I cannot say.”
Zatanna’s frown deepened as she crossed her arms. “You don’t know or you aren’t allowed to tell me?”
“I’m not allowed to know.”
“Well, he brought half the old studio here,” she said, looking around at the piles of dusty magician props, “If this is his storage room, I guess he didn’t plan to mention your fancy books anytime soon.”
“I cannot say.”
“Of course not.”
“May I speak, Shadowcrest?” asked Zachary.
Shadowcrest didn’t deign to look at him. “Be brief.”
“We can help Zatanna,” he said a little too eagerly.
“Yeah,” said Abdiel, “We’ll help her read the whole set. Doesn’t matter how long it takes.”
Zachary clapped her shoulder, and she cringed. Zachary didn’t notice and said, “Cover to cover. We’ll make a mage out of her in no time.”
Batman squeezed Zachary’s shoulder. Zachary lifted his hand and stepped back.
“Can we talk about fighting now?” asked Zatanna. She was now plainly upset, and her voice was close to cracking.
“Yes,” said Shadowcrest, “You may help prepare us, Mistress, but know that when Lord Faust arrives, you will return here for safety. These men will confront Faust from the study.”
Ordinarily, Zatanna would resent being treated as a helpless hangeron. But she remembered Faust wrecking the entrance hall and she decided not to make a fuss about this staying-out-of-danger idea. Zachary and Abdiel shared an uncomfortable glance at the notion of the same danger but said nothing. Batman had no response.
---In the infinite hallways of pink marble.
“A sacrifice,” said Catwoman. Part of her instantly grasped what this meant, but the rest hoped she misunderstood.
“With the arsenal scattered, I have but one device with which an unskilled mundane might slay Lord Faust. This device requires the lifeblood of a mage. One death for another. We could sacrifice one of the foolish brothers, but they are better served as battle fodder.”
“Sacrifice. Human sacrifice. You want me to put a stranger on an altar and kill them?”
“An altar won’t be necessary.”
“And you don’t know who it is? Somebody is chained in your attic and you can’t say anything about them?”
“Given Giovanni Zatara’s proclivities, I imagine it is one of the kin with whom he feuds.”
“Does he usually take prisoners?”
“Why’d he made an exception?”
“I cannot say.”
“Mm.” Catwoman bit her lip.
There was an airy whistle behind them. Catwoman spun to see a silver glint fly towards her like an arrow. She flinched, but the object stopped a yard from her chest. It was a short dagger, unremarkable except that it hovered in the air.
Catwoman let out a deep breath and cursed, angry once again that Shadowcrest didn’t have a tangible face to smack. She grabbed the dagger by its leather hilt.
Shadowcrest walked ahead. “Come.”
“Was that really necessary?” she asked as she followed.
“Early in his tenure as caretaker, Giovanni took an inventory of the arsenal and found some items unpalatable. He ordered these items destroyed, but a caretaker is not sovereign here. I would not let him rob from posterity, so I hid the forsaken collection.”
“Well, aren’t you smart,” said Catwoman, running her finger along the edge. “Do I press a button?”
“You press the point against flesh.”
Catwoman raised an eyebrow. “You want me to kill the world’s meanest wizard. With a knife?”
“For now the blade sleeps.”
“Care to clarify that?”
“When it tastes the final pulse of mage life, it will awaken. It will know the target for whom your heart harbors the bitterest spite. It will tell you what to do.”
“So it’s a talking knife.”
“It will tell you what to do.” Shadowcrest stopped and faced Catwoman, looking her in the eye with uncommon severity. “Once Faust is slain, do not continue to listen to it.”
“Wasn’t planning on it.”
“Then you are ready.”
Catwoman had been so preoccupied by the dagger that she hadn’t noticed they had taken several turns in the branching hallways. The marble had deepened from pink to a dark red. She stood just before a ring of geometric etchings in the walls. Beyond the ring, the marble was rougher and crossed with black veins. The path ahead had no branches, but it sloped sharply down and curved left out of sight. It was the most conspicuously evil thing Catwoman had seen tonight.
“I can follow you no further,” said Shadowcrest.
“You can’t?” she asked, sounding almost disappointed.
“This leads to one of the auxiliary treasuries. If you desire compensation, take what you wish from the round tables only, and do not dawdle. Beyond that is the chamber of the prisoner. Giovanni sometimes visits there, and he takes no precautions, so it is likely the prisoner can offer no resistance. Be steady. Finish the deed and return.”
Catwoman nodded and set her body to walk, but her feet didn’t move. She looked at the dagger and rubbed a hand over her face.
Shadowcrest lowered its head. “Giovanni Zatara is not a perfect man, but he would not cage an innocent.”
“Maybe, but there’s guilty and there’s guilty,” said Catwoman.
“And which are you?”
Catwoman’s face froze. “Come again?”
“Either go forward or die. Death means no more tomorrows, every dream and everything dear disappears. What value is a stranger against such a cost? Commit the sin, and you know perfectly well that you’ll find a way to live with it.”
“You don’t know the first thing about me.”
“Your hesitation is a vanity. You’ve never found it difficult to justify your actions. Tomorrow you’ll decide it was the lesser evil, that you are the lesser evil, surely as the sun rises. Is your life worth a minute of vanity?”
Catwoman rubbed her face again. Her lips were dry. “Shut up.”
“The man you brought? Dead. Was he a good man? I suspect the world will miss him. And dear Zatanna: whatever you may be, she is innocent. And just as dead. A moment of pain, then eternity for both.”
Catwoman grit her teeth. “I said shut up.”
“Of course, Lord Faust is very thorough. When he takes the estate, he will find this path in due time. I wonder what he would do with the prisoner. Perhaps he’ll feel merciful.”
Without making a conscious decision, Catwoman realized she was marching forward. There was nothing feline in her gait, nothing even steady, but it was committed.
---In the floating study.
Shadowcrest led Zatanna and her three protectors back through the fireplace to Giovanni’s seaside study.
Zachary’s police uniform had been drenched with plant sap, but after two trips through the fire it was completely dry. He muttered a spell as he walked, and in seconds the threads of his sleeves unwound up to the elbow, split from the fabric, and quickly stitched themselves over the holes in his shirt and pants. The patches were flawless.
Zatanna noticed this tiny miracle. She had a professional interest in good tailoring, and ordinarily she would have been astounded by a marvel that could put Singer out of business, but she obviously didn’t care. Batman noticed her foul mood. Focusing on hers helped him ignore his own. That bookcase had made Zatanna bitter. He had a theory why, but he couldn’t act. He had to leave her alone.
Shadowcrest reached the wrecked arsenal shelves. “Batman, bring Giovanni’s journals here.” Batman retrieved the sixteen journals and placed them on an overturned wardrobe.
Shadowcrest gestured to the stack. “Take a volume from the early-twenties.” Batman set aside a few journals then found one titled Journal of Sig. G. V. Z., Vol. 9: May ‘22 - Jul ‘24. It had torn edges and the binding was loose. “Browse the pages. Observe the top corner. You see some pages are stained blue.” Batman gently thumbed through the journal. Indeed, every twentieth page or so had a blue corner. Batman nodded.
Shadowcrew seemed relieved. “That was his most experimental period. I am blind to the pages before you, but Giovanni was lonesome and occasionally talked of his writing, if only to himself. He is an idiosyncratic journalist. His writing combines incidents of his life and mystic research in the same prose, and I’ve gleaned that blue marks distinguish his research notes, either from tests here or from observations in the field, as it were.”
Zatanna and both Cehennems had pressing questions about this information, but no one interrupted.
Shadowcrest gestured to the destruction of the study. Several small items floated out of the debris and landed on the overturned wardrobe. “Your Catwoman is acquiring our coup de grâce, but the battles of magi are rarely won in a single stroke. These tools are the best we have left to wear down Lord Faust’s defenses, so she might land the final attack.” Shadowcrest looked at the journals. “I can introduce these weapons academically, but Giovanni used them in the heat of combat. Overcoming foes with greater magical strength was his singular focus. You must find the notes to as many of these as possible.”
“On it,” said Batman. He was already spreading out the pile of journals into a grid for easy reach. He opened two and began flipping through both at once, never stopping at a page for longer than three seconds. Zatanna, Zachary, and Abdiel watched him in abject shock. Even Shadowcrest might have been unnerved.
“Are you reading everything?” asked Zatanna.
“Only checking the corners,” said Batman. In truth, he was reading as much as he could. This was not the relaxed pace of his monthly study. This was an Olympic sprint of reading, straining his eyes and mind in equal measure. He would not let this opportunity pass, but it took every ounce of that effort. Zatanna hadn’t exaggerated: her father’s handwriting was awful, and the ink was pale with age. Fortunately, he had grown familiar with Giovanni’s handwriting during his apprenticeship. Several passages were entirely in Italian, but thanks to the Four Families, he was almost as fluent as English.
After some time, Batman said, “The research notes don’t have a record system, but his descriptions are lucid and many have drawings. Matching isn’t a problem. I’ll search the whole collection. Could a weapon have multiple entries?”
“It’s possible,” said Shadowcrest finally.
“Fine.” Batman closed the first journal and opened a third, still turning pages in the second. “Do you know when Giovanni studied each weapon?”
“Many of them, yes.”
“I’ve already found notes on the two rings, the glove, and the fountain pen.” Batman pointed at each item without looking up. “When were the others?”
“Hold on, what do the notes say?” asked Abdiel.
“I’ll recite them later. Shadowcrest?”
“He investigated the cane with the ivory head in the summer of 1925,” said Shadowcrest
Batman closed a journal and reached for another, still paging through a separate journal in his other hand. This continued for several brisk minutes. As Batman and Shadowcrest conferred, Zachary and Abdiel pawed through the weapons, inspecting them and talking in low voices.
Zatanna looked over their shoulder, feeling useless. She pursed her lips and peered around for a way to help. On the ground nearby was a loose drawer that had been knocked free of some lost cabinet. Inside was a pair of red sunglasses. The sharp breeze from the ocean made her eyes water, so she picked them up.
Out of the corner of his eye, Zachary noticed her putting them on. “Don’t!” he cried.
Zatanna turned to his voice, but she put on the sunglasses. The instant they touched the bridge of her nose, she tripped forward, hitting Zachary and knocking the sunglasses off her face. They both fell to the floor.
Zachary groaned and rubbed his neck. Shadowcrest turned his attention long enough to say, “In case I wasn’t clear, Mistress, do not touch anything.”
Zatanna grimaced and picked herself up. “Sorry.” She straightened her hat.
Abdiel lifted the sunglasses and shook his head. “Every mage kid in America knows these. They were a big prank when we were young.”
“They make you trip?” asked Zatanna.
“You fall in the direction you’re looking.”
“What if I looked up?”
“Then you fall up. Some kids didn’t live to laugh about it.”
Batman didn’t look away from the journals, but he said, “Gravity isn’t a direction. It’s a-” He paused. His features visibly tightened and reset. “Nevermind.”
Zachary hobbled in a circle, stretching his neck. Zatanna felt awfully embarrassed, as if she didn’t feel rotten enough. “Do you need help finding a hospital later, Zach?” she asked. “I used to live in Gotham.”
Zachary snorted. “That’s cute. Nah, I’ll visit some friends who’ll patch me up.”
“You mean with magic?”
Zachary smirked. “Yes, Zatanna. With magic.”
“Abdiel said only real strong mages know how to fix big injuries.”
“It’s ‘magi’. And he’s right.”
“Lucky you have friends like that.”
“I wouldn’t call it luck.” Zachary gave her a meaningful look. “I’ll owe them some gifts if you know what I mean.”
“What gifts do magi give?”
Abdiel shrugged. “Gold.”
Zachary added, “Frankincense.”
“Myrrh is popular.”
---In the spiraling hallway of dark red marble.
Catwoman stopped walking two hundred steps past the etchings where she left Shadowcrest. She was well out of sight around the curving path, but she carefully looked both ways. Seeing nothing, she muttered, “Shady? Yoo-hoo.” There was no answer. She tossed the little dagger to the floor and muttered louder, “I’m going to misbehave and put the kibosh on your fancy plans. Better come stop me.”
There was still no response. Catwoman looked around again. Then she fell against the wall. Her shoulders sagged and she slumped down, finally sitting limp on the floor. Catwoman had slept for three restless hours that afternoon; otherwise, she had been awake for nearly two days, surviving one pulse-pounding confrontation after another. She was exhausted in every way a person could be exhausted. Her eye sockets itched. Her skin felt tight. Her teeth hurt. Her emotional gearbox was almost as rusted as Batman’s. It was a miracle she had been so patient and considerate all evening.
Catwoman was the most energetic person she knew, but severe sleep deprivation was a funny thing. You could be juggling on a unicycle one minute, then knocked as flat as a bad boxer the next. This was her first opportunity to let her guard down since she entered the Lisbon, and suddenly two days of strain had come due. Despite facing imminent death, Catwoman was perfectly willing to take a nap there on the evil marble floor. She knew she shouldn’t, but it wouldn’t be long. Only for a moment, she let her eyelids flutter shut.
There, on the edge of sleep, Catwoman found whispered thoughts from the quiet corners of her mind. She remembered that this sort of sleep felt familiar. She had taken a little cat nap on her last trip with Batman. They had split up then too. And then he died.
With her eyes closed, Catwoman shivered and frowned. No, that wasn’t true. But she had believed him dead. For a whole day, in fact. She had no intention of admitting this, but she preferred him alive.
Then Catwoman recalled again that they were presently split up now. And his life was in jeopardy. Catwoman opened one eye. She recalled that his survival depended on what she did in the next few minutes, and that she was currently sleeping on an evil floor. She moaned, found the little dagger, and forced herself to her feet. Like anyone woken prematurely, she was suddenly more open to the idea of indiscriminate murder.
After another minute of walking, the hallway opened into a bright room of milky white marble. Six life-sized bronze statues circled the walls. Each figure was a tradesman carrying a tool, like a farmer with a scythe, a miner with a pickaxe, and a smith with a hammer. On the other side of the room was a plain door. Catwoman ignored these details almost immediately when she saw the pile of gold.
There were four tables in the room, three round and one square. One round table was covered with neatly-stacked bars of gold. The other round tables held bottles of fragrant brown oils. The square table held stacks of Swiss francs in one hundred and five hundred franc banknotes.
Catwoman was still conflicted and bitter and very, very tired. But when energy and clarity fail, mastery prevails, and Catwoman was nothing if not a thief. She made a decision in a split second.
She quickly dismissed the two tables of brown oils. She recognized the scents from fine perfumes, but she didn’t know any dealers for perfume ingredients and reasoned that only an idiot would play with unknown liquids from a magic house.
The Swiss francs were promising. Those who knew Catwoman by reputation might assume that she thought stealing money was beneath her. This was untrue. Her speciality was compact art and luxury items, but if thousands of Swiss francs were left unsupervised, she was happy to find them a new home.
The dilemma was the gold. Catwoman had bittersweet feelings about gold: having it was wonderful; stealing it was infuriating. Gold was nearly the densest substance known. A kilogram bar eight millimeters thick could fit in the palm of a hand. Even five such bars weighed eleven pounds. Her satchel would club her hip when she landed her next long jump. A full haul was a recipe for spinal problems.
It wasn’t worth the trouble. She snatched one gold bar on principle then turned to the Swiss francs. Catwoman swifty emptied the tools from her satchel, looked at the money, looked at the unloaded tools, put back her two favorite lockpicks, the dagger, and a smoke bomb, looked at the money again, then took the smoke bomb and one of the lockpicks out again. Then she grabbed two fistfuls of francs and immediately regretted it.
The moment her fingers touched paper, the six bronze statues squealed to life and stepped towards her.
---In the floating study.
“That was undeniably impressive,” said Shadowcrest, “I feared merely explaining how to search and contextualize the journals would cost my remaining time, but we have minutes to spare.”
Batman had just finished quickly reciting the journal notes for every magical weapon on the overturned wardrobe. Shadowcrest and Zatanna recognized Giovanni’s turn of phrase and knew the recitations were genuine. Shadowcrest reviewed each weapon’s basic function, but the notes added critical warnings and suggestions, the sort of details that were clearly won through brutal experience.
Every story made Zatanna feel more unreal and detached as she struggled to rationalize her smiling father with the pragmatic guerilla fighter who wrote the journals. Seeing that awful bookcase had been bad enough; the dissonance here was miserable.
On several occasions, the Cehennems had to resist the urge to interrupt when they realized the foe of an anecdote had been their grandmother.
Mostly, they were all struggling to keep up with Batman’s rapid-fire questions. For every minute Batman had saved speedreading, he used most of them to interrupt his own recitations in order to ask about magical rules or seek confirmation for some conclusion. His questions often stumped Shadowcrest and the Cehennems, yet even their ignorance fueled him, shaping future questions around the edges of their intellectual negative space.
Batman’s questions focused on the traits he had noticed from magi generally and Faust in particular. He tried relentlessly to define their limits:
“Faust didn’t hear my approach at the Lisbon. Does he have any supernatural senses?”
“He was struck by the flash bomb in Giovanni’s apartment. Can he arbitrarily avoid or repel projectiles?”
“Abdiel fainited after animating the chairs in the dining room. Is magic physically tiring? Does anything prolong or exacerbate the feeling?”
The Cehennems hemmed and hawed. They constantly warned that magic had few generalities, but they were reluctant to suggest specifics because Faust was a powerful mage which, by definition, meant he had secrets.
As this heated discussion went on, Zatanna was silent and seemed to turn further in on himself. Batman struggled to ignore her. He had to focus. He might have appeared calm, but he was suppressing more turmoil than anyone. He knew the story of Giovanni Zatara.
---In the spiraling hallway of dark red marble.
Catwoman had been under the mistaken impression that she was exhausted. In reality, she was full of energy. She had so much energy that she could dodge a hammer by jumping over a table and then outrun six bronze statues trying to dismember her. The statues ran much faster than expected. She expected statues to be stationary, but presupposing that statues could run, she would have thought they would be much less agile. She swore a scythe trimmed her hair when she entered the hallway.
Catwoman’s sprint up the hallway might have set a world record in the world. When she saw Shadowcrest ahead, she pushed her legs even harder. She crossed the etchings at top speed with a noise like a motor, “Help! Help! Help! Help! Help! Help! Help!”
A moment later, the six statues followed. When a statue passed the etchings, it fell apart at the joints, tumbling into a pile of bronze appendages. The first statues tripped the latecomers, causing them to launch their loose chunks a fair distance, bouncing and skidding on the marble.
Catwoman slowed to a stop ten yards past. She sucked air as she walked back, holding her side.
She finally looked up when she heard Shadowcrest made a long, angry snarl. It was the most human noise he had made all night.
“Stupid vixen. Insolent jenny. We are undone.”
Catwoman was in no mood for insults. “Hey!" She stopped to take a breath. "They attacked out of nowhere.”
“I was clear: take what you wish from the round tables only.”
“I didn’t-” Catwoman suddenly remembered that instruction. She looked down and realized she was holding a fistful of Swiss francs. “Look, it was a mistake. I’ll go back-”
“My time is ended, gutter thief. The slaughter may commence before you return.”
“Then run, and curse your hands all the same. They take coin and deliver ruin.”
Catwoman was about to leave again, but she couldn't ignore that. “Listen bricks, these hands do a lot of good with that coin. I help people.”
Shadowcrest scoffed with a boiling rage. “He that sacrificeth of a thing wrongfully gotten, his offering is ridiculous; and the gifts of unjust men are not accepted.”
“The most High is not pleased with the offerings of the wicked; neither is he pacified for sin by the multitude of sacrifices.”
“Wait, is that scripture?”
“Whoso bringeth an offering of the goods of the poor doeth as one that killeth the son before his father's eyes.”
“No. I will not be quoted scripture from a haunted witch house.”
“The bread of the needy is their life: he that defraudeth him thereof is a man of blood.”
And with the last word, Shadowcrest disappeared.
---In the floating study.
The heated discussion had tapered to silence.
The Cehennem brothers walked around the study, pointing at pieces of furniture and casting spells.
Zatanna sat in a stuffed chair with her head in her hands, looking as lost as ever.
Batman had turned a table into a makeshift workbench. He disassembled and combined tools from his belt and bits of surrounding trash, preparing new devices with silent intensity.
Shadowcrest patiently watched the horizon, a statue to the world. It had seemed surprised that they had finished its preparations in time, but if it was at all sentimental about its own demise, it didn’t show.
Finally, Shaowcrest announced, “I end.” And with that, it disappeared.
---Leagues away, on a sandy atoll.
Lord Felix of Faust lied on the edge of a beach. The surf soaked his shoes and sand was getting in his silk indigo suit. A vulture with black-and-white checkerboard plumage pecked at his keffiyeh headdress. Scattered around him were the corpses of hundreds of large crabs shaped like rooks. He was centuries old but looked older.
There was a change in the air, like a faint chime gone silent, or the clearing of a distant mirage. It was something so infinitesimal, Faust barely noticed. It would be an impossible change, so it must not be happening. That was a comforting thought, but an old mage couldn’t afford complacency. He vaporized the vulture, sat up, took a deep breath, and attuned his senses to the mystic vibrations of this dimension.
Faust looked confused. Then his jaw dropped. Then his old lips broke into a wide smile. He began to chuckle, then to laugh a deep belly laugh. He vaporized another vulture circling above and launched himself into the air. Faust was soon a speck on the horizon, his laughs echoing across the waves.